Opinion: Just use the right pronouns


Bronwyn Green, Staff Columnist

A few weeks ago, I was at work taking the orders of two people who appeared to be on a date. One of them said what they wanted, and I replied, “Yes, ma’am, I’ll get that started for you.” As soon as I got the word “ma’am” out of my mouth, I realized I had made a mistake. Although they didn’t say anything, I could tell by the look on their face that I had said the wrong thing. I assumed the wrong pronoun. Being born and raised in the South, I have always been taught to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” when speaking to anyone, and I take pride in being annoyingly polite. Although some people think it is only to be said to older people, many of us Southerners say it to anyone we are trying to be polite to, regardless of age or authority. 

My interaction with the person at my job shifted my perspective a bit and made me realize that this habit has the potential to be problematic. First and foremost, I realize that some of you will think this is some liberal snowflake nonsense, but I’m confident that you’d be madder than a kicked hornet if I called you “ma’am” when you are, in fact, a “sir.” And don’t even start with your “ThEy Is SiNgUlAr” tomfoolery. I’m in my final semester of an English degree, and believe me, I know the rules. Pronouns are important, and calling people by the pronouns they prefer is so simple. There is absolutely no reason to ignore someone’s pronouns that you have been made aware of, and if you do, you are simply being disrespectful. In social settings, particularly if you are unsure of someone’s gender identity, it is completely appropriate to ask for their pronouns. You ask, they tell you, you use them. No harm, no foul. But in other settings like the situation at my job, things can be a bit trickier. 

Even though I know that I meant no harm by saying “ma’am” to my customer, that doesn’t mean that no harm was done. Sometimes, saying “ma’am” and “sir” is perfectly OK and appropriate, but learning to differentiate when to say it and when not to can be hard for a Southerner. You have to know your audience. If you are talking to people and you hear them referring to each other by their names, or something else leads you to be sure that you know their pronouns, you’re in the clear to “ma’am” and “sir” to your little Dixie heart’s desire. Other times, like if there is a group of people and you don’t feel confident assuming a person’s pronouns, just don’t “ma’am” or “sir” anyone in the group. I know that might sound odd, but you want to avoid singling out the person whose pronouns you don’t know, particularly in a situation where you can’t simply ask them what they prefer. 

The main takeaway here is that even when you think you are being polite, you still have the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, and you should be conscious of that. Mistakes happen, and most people are understanding, but as a general rule of thumb, if you aren’t sure, save the “ma’am” and “sir” for a different audience.